Required Reading

Norse Mythology

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by Neil Gaiman

ISBN 978-0-393-60909-7

“There were things Thor did when something went wrong. The first thing he did was ask himself if what had happened was Loki’s fault. Thor pondered. He did not believe that even Loki would have dared to steal his hammer. So he did the next thing he did when something went wrong, and went to ask Loki for advice.”

In the beginning, there was nothing but the mist world and the fire world. From these came Ymir, a giant both male and female, the first of all beings. Ymir was slain by Odin, called the all-father, for Odin both created the gods that you will read about here, and breathed life into the first humans. In these pages, Thor will acquire his famous hammer, the mighty Mjollnir. Loki will get his fellow gods into and out of trouble countless times, until he finally plays the trick that will lose him their trust once and for all. Witness the creation of the great walls of Asgard, the genesis of the gift of poetry, and the source of the gods’ immortality, as retold by Neil Gaiman.

Norse Mythology begins with a brief introduction chronicling Gaiman’s fascination with the Norse myths that have been carried down through the centuries. This section lasts only about six pages, and I would have been interested in further reflections on the place of Norse myths in our contemporary world, and how we relate to them today. Given the role these myths have played in Gaiman’s own works, he seems ideally suited to ponder the topic at greater length than the introduction affords. In this introduction, Gaiman identifies Ragnarok—the final battle—as a crucial element in his fascination; the Norse myths felt cyclical and alive thanks to this tradition of death and rebirth, and the inevitable end of all things, even the gods. Gaiman also briefly points out Norse gods whose names we know, but whose stories we do not have, because they were not recorded or passed down, before getting down to actually retelling the stories that are recorded.

Gaiman arranges the stories in a sequence that begins with the genesis of the nine worlds, proceeds through the creation of humanity, and finishes (or begins again) with Ragnarok, the “final destiny of the gods.” This arrangement speaks to the tantalizing cyclical nature of Norse mythology that Gaiman points to in the introduction as having so thoroughly captured his imagination as a child. The stories start out short, more informative than immersive, laying the necessary groundwork for understanding the mythos. Then Gaiman digs more heartily into the body of the work, obviously delighting in tales such as “The Mead of the Poets” and “The Last Days of Loki.” The tone ranges from humourous to epic, though much of the dialogue can be curiously modern throughout.

Most of the stories in the book are about Odin, Thor, and Loki, though other gods feature as well. My favourite of these was Kvasir, even if his role in the narrative is rather gruesome. As Gaiman points out in the introduction, there are many stories we don’t have, and gods who are remembered by name alone, their deeds and powers mostly forgotten. But Gaiman works well with what remains, particularly with the relationship between Loki and the other Asgardians. Gaiman mines the strange reliance and concurrent mistrust of this clever figure who was adopted among the Aesir. This relationship is particularly evident in “Freya’s Unusual Wedding,” in which Loki is charged with helping Thor retrieve his stolen hammer. Before going to Loki to seek help, Thor must first ask himself if Loki was responsible for the theft.

It is interesting to see in these tales similarities and connections to other mythologies and religious systems. Odin hangs from the world tree, his side pierced by a spear, not unlike Christ on the cross. There are three Norns, sisters very similar to the Fates of Greek mythology. The first man and woman are called Ask and Embla, not unlike the Christian Adam and Eve, though the Norse versions are created from wood rather than clay. The connections run deep and wide as the different traditions echo in surprising ways. Of course, as Gaiman points out in the introduction, the Norse myths that have come down to us were recorded after the coming of the Christianity, and it can be difficult to trace what was the root, and what was added later through comingling.

Norse Mythology includes an eight page glossary, which is helpful if you are reading the stories over a period time, because minor characters or artefacts reappear later, often with greater significance. I got quite confused at one point over whether Vali was the son of Odin or the son of Loki, but as the glossary so helpfully points out, there are actually two Valis. Many of the stories Gaiman chooses to retell here are in some way significant to the coming of Ragnarok, which is the final tale in the book, so the glossary is especially welcome as you reach that final convergence.

What begins with a patient laying of groundwork for the Norse mythos builds into epic levels of tension and mistrust as Ragnarok approaches. The gods in Gaiman’s hands are both powerful heroes and petty grudge-holders, sometimes magnanimous, but often untrustworthy. It is a retelling that feels at once fresh and accurate.

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